Judge allows D.C. to vote on medical marijuana use

Law overturned

issue can go on Nov. ballot

March 30, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - A federal judge here has overturned a law prohibiting residents of the city from circulating or voting on a ballot initiative to legalize marijuana for medical purposes.

As a result, a measure to legalize the cultivation, possession, use and distribution of marijuana for seriously ill patients whose doctors recommend it can be put on the ballot as early as November.

The judge, Emmet G. Sullivan of U.S. District Court, ruled Thursday that the law barring circulation of the initiative was unconstitutional.

"There can be no doubt that the Barr Amendment restricts plaintiff's First Amendment right to engage in political speech," Sullivan wrote in his ruling.

The legislation that prohibited city officials and residents from considering the legalization of marijuana was called the Barr Amendment after its sponsor, Republican Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia. It prevented the city from using public money to pursue the initiative.

Barr said the court had "ignored the constitutional right and responsibility of Congress to pass laws protecting citizens from dangerous and addictive narcotics."

But Robert Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, an advocacy group that was a plaintiff in the case, said the "ruling strongly affirms the notion that Congress' power over the District of Columbia has limits."

A spokesman for the Justice Department said it had not decided whether to appeal.

Last year, proponents of the medical use of marijuana sued the federal government and the District of Columbia Board of Elections and Ethics seeking an injunction that would bar enforcement of the law.

The legislation was enacted by Congress in 1998 after a similar marijuana initiative had been placed on the ballot and set off a dispute over home rule for the city.

The medical marijuana initiative could be on the ballot this year if 16,000 signatures are collected and certified by July 5. Voters backed the initiative four years ago, with 69 percent approving it.

Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington have removed criminal penalties for seriously ill patients who use and grow marijuana with the approval of their doctors.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in May that federal drug laws banning the manufacture and distribution of marijuana allow no exceptions, even for seriously ill patients who need the drug to survive. Ruling 8-0, the court rejected the claims of an Oakland, Calif., cannabis cooperative that it should be allowed to provide marijuana to patients with a "medical necessity."

The court said that when Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act, it declined to create an exception for the medical use of marijuana and left no room for the courts to do so in its place.

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